Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Henry Moore OM, CH Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964-5, cast 1965

Atom Piece is the working model for Moore’s monumental outdoor sculpture Nuclear Energy 1964–6, commissioned by the University of Chicago to commemorate the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. With its domed top, reminiscent of a mushroom cloud, the work relates to Moore’s earlier series of ‘helmet head’ sculptures, and was described by Herbert Read in 1965 as symbolising ‘those forces which modern man has released for ends which cannot yet be imagined or realised’.
Henry Moore OM, CH 1898–1986
Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy)
1964–5, cast 1965
1182 x 915 x 915 mm
Inscribed ‘Moore 0/6’ and stamped with foundry mark ‘H. NOACK BERLIN’ on foot
Presented by the artist 1978
Artist’s copy aside from edition of 6


As its subtitle suggests, Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5 represents the intermediary stage in the development of a much larger sculpture, Nuclear Energy 1964–6, which Moore was commissioned to make for the University of Chicago to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first controlled generation of nuclear power, conducted by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi in 1942.
Henry Moore 'Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy)' 1964–5, cast 1965
Henry Moore
Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) stands at just over one metre tall on a shallow circular base. It forms a single unit but comprises two distinct sections. The lower part is made up of three roughly textured vertical forms connected near the base by a horizontal shelf of bronze. These three column-like blocks merge and swell into the upper section, which takes the form of a highly polished dome (fig.1).
The lower section resembles a tripod, with three feet arching upwards into a thick, slightly concave platform, which hovers above the base. The irregular arches formed between the three feet are suggestive of caves or coastal arches and expose the underside of the sculpture (fig.2). The outer surfaces of these forms are heavily textured with horizontal striations, forming a visual parallel to cliff stacks that may owe a debt to the legs of Moore’s earlier Two Piece Reclining Figure No.2 1960 (Tate T00395). Each of the three upright forms are shaped and textured differently. The largest is thin and wide with a concave outer face, another is smoother and has a flat lower edge, and the third is faceted and curves sharply inward. Two of them feature trenchant right-angled planes, suggesting that they have been cut into and hollowed out to produce the internal cavity at the centre of the sculpture. Visible between the upright forms are the underside of the dome, which curves slightly to echo its outer surface, and the smooth horizontal plane below it, which has been incised with a single concave groove. The texture of the underside of the dome indicates that a spatula was used to apply the plaster to the model from which the bronze was cast. A horizontal seam encircles each leg where it meets the dome, identifying where the upper and lower sections were welded together after casting (fig.3). A circular plug, visible halfway along the seam on the outer face of the widest leg, and a bronze patch marked by a square welding seam on the surface of the dome, were probably inserted to correct faults in the bronze.
Detail of lower section of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Detail of welding seam on Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved

The domed upper part of the sculpture has a highly polished outer surface (fig.4). Elliptical depressions and curves have been cut into the lower edge of the dome, a thin section of which curls inward to form its underside. From certain angles the position and shape of these indentations may be seen to resemble eyes, while a recessed spiral hollow adjacent to the widest leg also recalls the shape of an ear (fig.5).
Detail of upper section of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Detail of recessed area in upper section of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved

The Chicago commission
By the early 1960s demand for public sculptures to furnish newly built city squares and courtyards had increased dramatically. Moore’s commission for the Unesco building in Paris in 1957–8 (see Working Model for Unesco Reclining Figure 1957, Tate T00390) had alerted international clients to the artist’s large-scale work, and earned him numerous commissions. On 14 November 1963 William McNeill, Professor of History at the University of Chicago, wrote to Moore to enquire whether he would be interested in creating a large-scale outdoor sculpture commemorating the work of Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. On 2 December 1942 Fermi had achieved the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction in the university’s laboratories, and the university was seeking to erect an appropriate monument to this achievement. The social historian Iain Boal has noted that ‘the reasons why Moore made the Chicago shortlist are obvious enough: by the early 1960s the open-air sculptor par excellence was decorating the plazas and cathedrals of capitals with his bronzes. He had become the safe modernist master’.1
Moore replied to McNeill on 2 December 1963 expressing an interest in the commission, stating:
I realize what a tremendous happening that was, and that a monument for such a triumphant breakthrough may be called for. It seems an enormous event in man’s history, and a worthy memorial for it would be a great responsibility and not easy to do. However, it would be a great challenge and something I might like to consider.2
Later that month McNeill, Professor of Art Harold Haydon, and the architect Ike Colburn arrived at Moore’s home, Hoglands, in Hertfordshire to discuss the commission further. Moore had little time to prepare for the visit, but presented the delegation with a small maquette to consider. Moore rarely designed sculptures to a specific brief; instead he would invite commissioning parties to choose from a selection of maquettes or mid-sized working models already in development, which allowed him to retain artistic control over a commission and develop ideas for his work independently of others. Moore later recalled that:
It’s a rather strange thing really but I’d already done the idea for this sculpture before Professor McNeill and his colleagues from the University of Chicago came to see me on Sunday morning to tell me about the whole proposition ... As they told me the story and the situation, I gradually remembered that only a fortnight previously, I’d been working in my little maquette studio (because I was trying to think as they told me what form or what shape such an idea brought to my mind) and the story reminded me of a sculpture I’d already done, about six inches high which was just a maquette for an idea. I said to them that I thought I had done the idea as far as I would be able to and I showed them the maquette, and I said, ‘I’m going to make this sculpture into a working model’ ... ‘Would you wait until I’ve made this working model which will be about four or five feet in height and then when you see it, we could come to a decision whether it would really be suitable for your purpose?’3
McNeill also recalled his visit to Perry Green:
He did indeed produce a maquette on the spot, a piece of plaster about six inches high if I remember aright [sic]. He said he made it a day or two before our visit in anticipation of our arrival, after fondling bits of odd shaped stones that he used to stimulate the imagination. He showed us the box in which these eroded stones – pebbles from some beach I believe – were kept ... I cannot tell what [the] others thought of the maquette; I felt pleased that he was willing to go ahead on the open-ended basis, with no binding obligation on either side. When the full-scale piece emerged, well then we could have a look and decide: and try to find the money needed. I had little doubt that Henry Moore would produce a piece we could be proud of: I could not really visualize the effect of a bronze sculpture 12 or 14 feet high in the shape of the piece of white plaster one holds in the hand.4
Boal has observed that Moore’s and McNeill’s respective accounts of when the small maquette was made are contradictory. If the maquette was made a day or two before the visit, as McNeill recalled, it would suggest that the sculpture was designed in response to the commission. If, however, it was made a fortnight before the visit, as Moore suggested, it is possible that he made the maquette without any knowledge of the Chicago commission.5 In any case, as Moore noted the maquette for Atom Piece was made in his small studio in the grounds of Hoglands. When asked in 1960 how he arrived at an idea for a sculpture, Moore replied:
Well, in various ways. One doesn’t know really how ideas will come. But I can induce them by starting with looking at a box of pebbles. I have collected bits of pebbles, bits of bone, found objects, and so on, all of which help to give an atmosphere to start working. Then with those pebbles ... I sit down and something begins. Then perhaps at a certain stage the idea crystallizes and then you know what to do, what to alter.6
This account correlates with McNeill’s description of Moore ‘fondling bits of odd shaped stones’, and would suggest that the origins of Atom Piece may be partially traced to Moore’s pre-existing interest in weathered rock formations. However, shortly before the inauguration of the full-size sculpture in 1967 Moore wrote to McNeill responding to an earlier request:
You ask if I would bring a few pebbles used when working on the preliminary conception of the statue. Actually the idea for NUCLEAR ENERGY did not come from any particular natural object. I can’t fully explain how the idea of it arrived, except that it has some connection with earlier HELMET HEAD and the INTERIOR/EXTERIOR form sculptures of mine.7

From plaster to bronze

Henry Moore 'Maquette for Atom Piece'
Henry Moore
Maquette for Atom Piece
The Henry Moore Foundation
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Michael Phipps, Henry Moore Foundation Archive
Moore made two plaster maquettes for Atom Piece, one of which is held in the collection of the Henry Moore Foundation (fig.6). The other is housed in the Henry Moore Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. In 1987 Alan Wilkinson, then a curator at the AGO, claimed that its version was the ‘original plaster’, and therefore the one shown to McNeill and his colleagues in December 1963, but it is more likely that both surviving maquettes were reproductions made in 1970.8 In 1967 the University of Chicago enquired whether it could borrow materials relating to the commission for an exhibition coinciding with the unveiling of the final sculpture in December that year. Moore replied: ‘when you ask if I have sketches of the statue – do you mean drawings? If so, there were no preliminary drawings – the idea was produced in a maquette made directly in plaster. This original maquette (only about five or six inches high) was never properly photographed and has since been destroyed’.9 That same year the art historian Albert Elsen also recorded that the maquette for Atom Piece had been ‘broken and lost’.10 In 1970 Moore cast Maquette for Atom Piece 1964–70 in a bronze edition of thirteen.
Following the visit of McNeill, Haydon and Colburn, Moore began working on an enlarged ‘working model’ of the sculpture for the consideration of the Chicago committee. By systematically charting and measuring specific points on the surface of the plaster maquette it was possible to enlarge the design while retaining its original proportions. The enlargement process was carried out in the White Studio in the grounds of Hoglands, or, weather permitting, outside on the studio terrace. Some of the preliminary enlargement work is known to have been undertaken by Moore’s sculpture assistant Derek Howarth, probably with the help of Moore’s other assistants, who in 1964 were Geoffrey Greetham, Robert Holding, Roland Piché, Ron Robertson-Swann, Hylton Stockwell and Yeheskiel Yardini.11 Moore’s assistants would have first constructed an armature to the required size and approximate shape of the sculpture using numerous lengths of wood held together with daubs of plaster (fig.7). This was then draped in scrim, a bandage-like fabric, before layers of plaster were built up on top until only the tips of the armature rods could be seen (fig.8).
Photograph of armature for Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) in Moore's studio 1964
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Henry Moore Foundation Archive
Photograph of construction of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) in 1964
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Henry Moore Foundation Archive

Moore found plaster to be a very useful material because it could be ‘both built up, as in modelling, or cut down, in the way you carve stone or wood’.12 Using an array of tools, including trowels, axes and cheese-graters, different types of markings, grooves and cuts could be made according to the wetness of the plaster as it dried, all of which were reproduced in the bronze cast. In 1977 the curator Alan Bowness drew attention to the contrasting textures in Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy), noting that ‘most of the post-war bronzes had rough, variegated textures, but from 1963 or so Moore began to introduce smooth and polished bronze surfaces. They sometimes contrast with the rougher areas, as in the polished cranium of the Atom Piece’.13
On 17 August 1964 Moore wrote to McNeill to update him on the progress of the working model: ‘I just wanted to tell you that I have finished the working-size version of what I have started calling ‘CHICAGO STATUE’, that is, I have made a sculpture from the small maquette you saw, about four feet high, so that I could work out refinements and small changes which were unsatisfactory in the small maquette’.14 Of particular significance here is Moore’s assertion that he made alterations to the original design as he was scaling it up.
Detail of artist's signature, edition number and foundry stamp on Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Two months later Moore wrote to McNeill stating, ‘I have decided to start work on the final size sculpture in plaster – to be cast in bronze. The working model is now complete and is being cast into bronze so we can get some idea of how bronze will suit it’.15 Moore employed the Noack Foundry in West Berlin to cast the working model, remarking in 1967 that ‘I use the Noack foundry for casting most of my work because in my opinion, Noack is the best bronze founder I know ... Also, the Noack foundry is reliable in all ways – in keeping to dates of delivery – and in sustaining the quality of their work’.16 Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) was cast in an edition of six plus one artist’s copy in 1965. The edition number ‘0/6’ is inscribed on one of the feet of the sculpture underneath the artist’s signature, indicating that Tate’s cast of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) was originally the artist’s copy (fig.10).
Detail of square welding seam on Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
It is not known whether the lost wax or sand casting technique was used to create this bronze sculpture, but in either case the technicians at Noack would have cut up the plaster sculpture into sections and taken moulds from each individual piece, into which molten bronze was poured. Once all the pieces of the sculpture had been cast they were welded together and the casting seams ‘chased’ to render the joins as imperceptible as possible. However, welding seams sometimes become more prominent over time, and a square seam is visible on the upper dome of Tate’s sculpture (fig.11).17
Henry Moore 'Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy)' 1964–5, cast 1965
Henry Moore
Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965
Tate T02296
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
After it had been assembled at the foundry Moore would have inspected the quality of the casting and made decisions about its patination. A patina is the surface colour of a sculpture and is usually achieved by applying chemical solutions to the pre-heated bronze surface. In 1963 Moore asserted, ‘I always patinate bronze myself’, explaining that since he had conceived the sculpture it would be unlikely that anyone else would be able to replicate the exact colour he wanted.18 Moore usually patinated bronze sculptures at his studio, but during the 1960s and early 1970s he regularly travelled to the Noack Foundry and patinated his sculptures on their premises to avoid the expense of transporting works of this size. It is also known that, contrary to Moore’s claim, the technicians at Noack would sometimes patinate his sculptures following his instructions. Tate’s cast of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) features a gradation of colour between the top and bottom of the sculpture. The polished, golden brown surface of the dome contrasts with the darker brown shades of the more roughly textured lower areas, while reddish shades appear on the curved, recessed surfaces that bridge them (fig.12). Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin and prolonged exposure to chemicals in the air alters its patina. Slightly green areas, mainly located on the sculpture’s lower interior faces, were likely produced in this way.

Titling Nuclear Energy and exhibiting Atom Piece

The first bronze cast of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) arrived at Moore’s studio on 29 January 1965. It is unclear whether Tate’s example of the sculpture is this first cast or one of the six examples cast by Noack later that year. In February 1965 Moore sent a set of photographs of the completed bronze sculpture to the University of Chicago’s Memorial Planning Committee, and on 23 July McNeill wrote that ‘I am happy to be able to report that the University authorities have now approved the acquisition of your statue “Atom Piece”’.19 Although McNeill referred to the full-size sculpture as Atom Piece in his July letter, on 24 September he noted that ‘we must now learn to call [the sculpture] Nuclear Energy’.20 Moore had recently visited Chicago to view the site for the sculpture and on 25 September a press release announcing the commission stated: ‘The title of the work by Mr. Moore is Nuclear Energy. Mr. Moore agreed to this title after a lunch with the University of Chicago faculty members [on] Friday’.21 McNeill later recalled that the pun formed by ‘atom piece’ and ‘atom peace’ was ‘too close to be comfortable’ for many of the University’s senior members.22 However, as Boal has noted, ‘despite agreeing during his Chicago site visit in September 1965 to re-title the work, Moore continued himself to give the name Atom Piece, not only to the maquette and to the four-foot working model, but to the final unique cast bronze sculpture’.23
A cast of the working model was shown in the exhibition British Sculpture in the Sixties at the Tate Gallery, London, between February and April 1965, and further casts were exhibited at Moore’s commercial gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, at its Rome and London premises in May and July respectively. Exhibited under the title Atom Piece, the working model initially received mixed reviews. At the Marlborough New London Gallery it was displayed as part of a two-person exhibition of works by Moore and the painter Francis Bacon. In a review for the Times titled ‘Bacon and Moore again in Powerful Relation’, an unnamed critic singled out the sculpture:
It seems to have a complex significance. It would be possible to appreciate it from a purely abstract standpoint by reference to its hollows and convexities, the calculated difference between a polished smoothness and a rough texture of surface. Yet if one looks on it as incited by the thought of atomic explosion, its swelling dome as an equivalent of [a] mushroom cloud, one may feel it as a sign of the artist’s optimism that an image of stabilized power appears rather than of sinister disintegration.24
Overall the critic for the Times gave a positive review of both the formal qualities of the sculpture and its capacity for hope in an atomic age. Meanwhile, G.S. Whittet, writing in the art magazine Studio International, described the sculpture as:
a totemic head; it is a stylised naturalistic rendering of a damaged human – it is all of them and it is none of them for its exaggeration takes it out of the field of comparison with reality and instead remains as a paraphrase, a metaphor of the mortal condition.25
Whittet concluded his review of the exhibition by stating that, ‘It is no exaggeration to say that in twentieth-century art Henry Moore is the one who expresses, if not goodness, at least the strength and dignity that survive in this civilization’.26 However, the critic Edwin Mullins took an opposing stance in his review for the Sunday Telegraph, describing Atom Piece as ‘a brutish thing, based on a confused and pretentious idea’,27 while in the Guardian the critic Norbert Lynton called the sculpture ‘a prosaic image inflated beyond its formal capacity and then burdened with a title that stresses its vague similarity to a mushroom cloud’.28

Sources and symbolism

In his monograph on Moore, published in December 1965, the critic Herbert Read noted that ‘the last piece to be completed by Moore at the time of writing is the Atom Piece of July, 1964’.29 It is probable that Read had only seen the plaster working model when he wrote the first draft of his book in the summer of 1964, although he made revisions to the text a year later, by which point he may have seen a bronze cast. Of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) Read wrote:
The configuration of the piece was suggested by the shape of the cloud that rises after the explosion of an atomic bomb – a beautiful shape, as is often the case with shapes associated with evil or murderous purposes – the shapes of spears, axes swords, etc. This paradox, in which good and evil, beauty and power, unite in one symbol, is fully realized in this unusual piece – unusual because, if I am not mistaken, it is the only piece of sculpture by Henry Moore that is inspired by mechanical forces rather than organic growth ... [nonetheless] in this case the dense dome-like cloud develops into a form similar to the compact bone-structure of the human skull, as if the sculptor were fully aware of this significant correspondence. The lower half of the sculpture is architectural, a series of arched cavities merging into a domed space reminiscent of the inside of a cathedral. The whole concept suggests the containment of a powerful force, in the way that a compact skull holds a brain capable of the wildest fantasies. The Atom Piece symbolizes those forces which modern man has released for ends which cannot yet be imagined or realized, but which for the present we inevitably associate with universal destruction. At the same time it negates this evil intention and returns the contemplating mind to a mood of stillness and serenity.30
For Read, Atom Piece could be understood not only in terms of nuclear explosions and ‘mechanical forces’, but as a humanistic statement in support of ‘modern man’ and positive advances in science. This duality was also noted at the unveiling of the full-size Nuclear Energy at the University of Chicago on 2 December 1967.31 In his address at the ceremony, Harold Haydon, who had been part of the delegation that visited Hoglands in 1963, recognised that ‘nuclear energy, for which the sculpture is named, is a magnet for conflicting emotions, some of which inevitably will attach to the bronze form; it will harbor or repel emotion according to the states of mind to those who view the sculpture’.32 The polarities of beauty and devastation, hope and terror identified in Nuclear Energy were seen to echo the belief that the outcomes of Fermi’s experiment were liable to both positive and negative uses, namely nuclear power and the atomic bomb. These interpretations were supported by Moore’s own statements on the work. In an article published in the summer of 1967, Albert Elsen narrated his discussion with Moore about Atom Piece:
Without amplification, he observed that the smoothness and brilliance of the warm gold patinated bronze was important for the theme. On the contrast between the dome and its supports, Moore did observe that ‘nuclear power is both for good and bad, it is not all destructive. As I worked on the piece, I rationalized to myself what this power would be used for’.33
Over time the dual possibilities of nuclear energy became an explanatory trope for Moore. Echoing Read’s references to a ‘compact skull’ and the interior vaults of a cathedral, in 1977 Moore stated that:
I like the details which show its skull-like top. I meant the sculpture to suggest that it was man’s cerebral activity that brought about the nuclear-fission discovery. I can also suggest the mushroom cloud, the destructive element of the atom bomb.
The lower half of the sculpture has something architectural about it, like the arches of a cathedral or entrances leading into a protective interior, suggesting the valuable and helpful side the splitting of the atom could have for mankind. And there are many other symbolic interpretations to be found in it.34
Errol Jackson
Errol Jackson
Henry Moore in his studio, October 1970
The Henry Moore Foundation
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Errol Jackson, Henry Moore Foundation Archive
Moore’s well-documented interest in bones encouraged the interpretation of the form of Atom Piece as being derived from a skull, and in 1970 Moore sought to make this analogy explicit. On 4 October 1970 the photographer Errol Jackson took a series of portraits of Moore working on the Atom Piece maquette next to an elephant skull (fig.13). The photographs imply that the elephant skull may have informed the design of the maquette, despite their difference in size. Jackson recalled that ‘Moore asked me to make some portraits of him at work, putting finishing touches to the Atom Piece maquette. The elephant’s skull was to be in the background, as it was the original inspiration for Atom Piece’.35 However, in 2003 Boal challenged the causal link between the skull and the maquette, noting that ‘the 1970 photo session was obviously intended retroactively to fix the connection’ because ‘Moore could not possibly have seen the elephant skull before he made the original maquette shown to the Chicago delegation in December 1963, for the simple reason that the skull did not reach London before the spring of 1964’.36 According to Moore’s biographer Roger Berthoud, Moore first saw the elephant skull, which had been imported from Kenya by his friends Julian and Juliette Huxley, in 1965.37 At this time Moore was already working on the mid-size working model, and it was only several months later that Juliette Huxley decided to give Moore the skull as a gift. Given that Moore had declared in 1965 that the original maquette for Atom Piece had been destroyed, it is probable that the maquette seen in Jackson’s photographs was actually made in 1970 to be cast in bronze. In light of Boal’s assertions, Tate curator Chris Stephens has remarked that ‘it does seem that the sculptor’s 1970 strategy to associate the Atom Piece maquette with the skull ... reflected a desire to depoliticize the sculpture linking it to a less specific organic source’.38
Henry Moore 'The Helmet' 1939–40
Henry Moore
The Helmet 1939–40
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
As Moore informed McNeill in November 1967, Atom Piece may also be understood in relation to the artist’s ongoing series of ‘helmet head’ sculptures, which were conceived before the Second World War. The Helmet 1939–40 (fig.14) was one of the first sculptures in which Moore explored the relationship between internal and external forms, in particular an inner upright figure protected within a domed outer shell. After the war Moore returned to the idea of a smooth rounded dome or helmet serving as an external shield in Helmet Head No.1 1950 (Tate T00388), and developed eight further ‘helmet head’ sculptures between 1950 and 1966 (see also Helmet Head No.4: Interior-Exterior 1963, Tate T02291). It is likely that Moore sought to build on this idea in the maquette for Atom Piece. Indeed, in 1967 Elsen reported that ‘while we were standing in front of the bronze cast of the working model, Moore gestured to its all over conformation and commented that for him it had “the morbid quality of a skull” ... He acknowledged that it came out of the Helmet series, and he indicated where he saw an ear and eye slot form’.39 However, in the case of Atom Piece Moore chose to focus attention on the empty space between the upper and lower forms rather than on distinct internal and external components, as he had done with the helmet heads. Discussing Nuclear Energy in 1970 Moore acknowledged that:
Often my ideas grow from earlier ones and sometimes one of them refers to an initial idea and makes a variation on it. There is no doubt that this, the nuclear energy piece, has connections with previous sculptures that I’ve made which were based on skull forms or on dome-like forms with an interior to them. This piece became a combination of these two ideas. How successful or how much this can be conveyed to other people I don’t know, it’s just my interpretation.40
H.K. Henrion 'Stop Nuclear Suicide' c.1959
H.K. Henrion
Stop Nuclear Suicide c.1959
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Archive, London
Chris Stephens has identified that, when writing about Atom Piece in 1964–5, Herbert Read was ‘anxious to emphasise the specificity of the atomic explosion as the sculpture’s source’.41 Boal and Stephens have both argued that when Read wrote that ‘the dense dome-like cloud develops into a form similar to the compact bone-structure of the human skull, as if the sculptor were fully aware of this significant correspondence’, his description may have been informed by his knowledge of H.K. Henrion’s photomontage for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), in which an image of a human skull is superimposed over a mushroom cloud (fig.15). It is believed that Henrion designed the poster in 1959, after which it quickly became a recognisable symbol for the campaign against the development of nuclear weapons. Moore is likely to have been familiar with Henrion’s photomontage: in 1950 he had signed a letter published in the Times protesting against the potential use of atomic weapons, and in 1958 had become one of the founding sponsors of the CND.
Stephens has suggested that the ambiguous symbolic content of Atom Piece was in keeping with Moore’s attitudes towards military conflict. In 1940 Moore had written to his friend Arthur Sale, who was a conscientious objector, expressing unresolved feelings regarding the war with Nazi Germany:
I can’t say with complete certainty that there aren’t some things I might find myself ready to fight for, & so I can’t call myself a wholy [sic.] consistent conscientious objector. I’d be glad if I could, for I respect greatly the real pacifist point of view, and I’m glad to know that you are a C.O., & will have the courage to remain so.42
In December 1950, in response to growing anxieties over the war in Korea, Moore, along with Benjamin Britten, E.M. Forster, Augustus John and others, signed their names to a letter stating that ‘in no circumstances should our country associate itself with the use of atomic weapons against people who have not used them against us’.43 Although the letter called for diplomatic resolutions, Stephens noted that it falls short of calling for complete nuclear disarmament, claiming that Moore ‘drew a distinction between the belligerent use of nuclear power in the atomic bomb and the benign potential of nuclear energy’.44 The art historian Catherine Jolivette has argued that Moore’s Atom Piece not only communicates Moore’s personal ambivalence, but ‘provide[s] a fitting illustration of the complex range of British attitudes towards atomic power’.45

The Henry Moore Gift

Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) was presented by Henry Moore to the Tate Gallery in 1978 as part of the Henry Moore Gift. The Gift comprised thirty-six sculptures in bronze, marble and plaster and was exhibited in its entirety alongside Tate’s existing collection of Moore’s work in an exhibition celebrating the artist’s eightieth birthday, which opened in June 1978. A press release was duly prepared announcing that ‘The group [of sculptures] is the most substantial gift of works ever given to the Tate by an artist during his lifetime’.46 Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) was displayed in gallery twenty-one alongside Working Model for Knife-Edge Two-Piece 1962 (Tate T00603) and Two Piece Reclining Figure No.3 1961 (Tate T02287). The exhibition was attended by over 20,500 people and nearly 11,000 copies of the catalogue were sold.47 At its close in late August the Director of Tate, Norman Reid, reflected in a letter to Moore’s daughter Mary Danowski that although he was sad to see the exhibition come to an end ‘we have the consolation of the splendid group of sculptures which Henry has presented to the nation’.48 After the exhibition Tate decided that it should lend certain works from the Henry Moore Gift to regional galleries in the United Kingdom on a long-term basis.49 Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) was loaned to Bradford City Art Gallery from 1979 to 1981, when it was included in an international touring exhibition around Spain and Portugal.
Other casts of Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) are held in the Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki; the John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore; the Hakone Open Air Museum, Hakone; and the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima. One other cast is believed to be in a private collection.

Alice Correia
September 2013


Iain A. Boal, ‘Ground Zero: Henry Moore’s Atom Piece at the University of Chicago’, in Jane Beckett and Fiona Russell (eds.), Henry Moore: Critical Essays, Aldershot 2003, p.224.
Henry Moore, letter to William McNeill, 2 December 1963, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
Henry Moore cited in David H. Katzive, ‘Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy: The Genesis of a Monument’, Art Journal, vol.32, no.3, Spring 1973, p.286.
William McNeill, letter to Roger Berthoud, 15 March 1985, p.2, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
See Boal 2003, p.225.
Henry Moore cited in Donald Hall, ‘Henry Moore: An Interview by Donald Hall’, Horizon, November 1960, pp.104, 113, reprinted in Alan Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot 2002, p.215.
Henry Moore, letter to William McNeill, 22 November 1967, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
Alan G. Wilkinson, Henry Moore Remembered: The Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Toronto 1987, p.211.
Henry Moore, letter to Vice President Daly, University of Chicago, 1 December 1965, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
Albert Elsen, ‘Henry Moore’s Reflections on Sculpture’, Art Journal, vol.26, no.4, Summer 1967, p.353.
Derek Howarth, ‘Assisting Henry Moore 1964–70’, in Anita Feldman and Malcolm Woodward, Henry Moore: Plasters, London 2011, p.112.
Henry Moore cited in John Hedgecoe (ed.), Henry Moore, London 1968, p.300.
Alan Bowness (ed.), Henry Moore. Volume 4: Complete Sculpture 1964–73, London 1977, p.11.
Henry Moore, letter to William McNeill, 17 August 1964, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
Henry Moore, letter to William McNeill, 30 October 1964, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
Henry Moore, letter to Heinz Ohff, 8 March 1967, Henry Moore Foundation Archive.
Seam lines usually become more prominent when the metal used to weld the sections together has a different composition to the rest of the bronze.
Henry Moore cited in ‘Henry Moore Talking to David Sylvester’, 7 June 1963, transcript of Third Programme, BBC Radio, broadcast 14 July 1963, pp.3–4, Tate Archive TGA 200816.
William McNeill, letter to Henry Moore, 23 July 1965, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
William McNeill, letter to Henry Moore, 24 September 1965, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
University of Chicago press release, 25 September 1965, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
William McNeill, letter to Roger Berthoud, 15 March 1985, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
Boal 2003, pp.230.
Anon., ‘Bacon and Moore Again in Powerful Relation’, Times, 14 July 1965, p.15.
G.S. Whittet, ‘Farewell to Flat, Goodbye to Square: London Commentary’, Studio International, October 1965, pp.169–70.
Ibid., p.170.
Edwin Mullins in Sunday Telegraph, 1 August 1965, Henry Moore Foundation Archive.
Norbert Lynton, ‘Reality Abandoned’, Guardian, 29 July 1965, p.6.
Herbert Read, Henry Moore: A Study of His Life and Work, London 1965, p.246.
Ibid., pp.246, 248.
The sculpture was unveiled at 3:36 pm, the exact time of Fermi’s experiment twenty-five years earlier.
Harold Haydon, ‘The Testimony of Sculpture’, transcript of dedication made at unveiling of Nuclear Energy 1964–6 at the University of Chicago, 2 December 1967, Tate Archive TGA 20011/11.
Elsen 1967, p.353.
Henry Moore cited in David Finn, Henry Moore: Sculpture and Environment, New York 1977, p.448.
Errol Jackson cited in Boal 2003, p.234.
Boal 2003, p.234.
Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore, 1987, revised edn, London 2003, p.408.
Chris Stephens, ‘Henry Moore’s Atom Piece: The 1930s Generation Comes of Age’, in Jane Beckett and Fiona Russell (eds.), Henry Moore: Critical Essays, Aldershot 2003, p.250.
Elsen 1967, p.353.
Moore cited in Katzive 1973, p.286.
Stephens 2003, p.251.
Henry Moore, letter to Arthur Sale, 8 October 1938, Imperial War Museum Archive IWM ART 16597 2 a-b, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19444, accessed 24 June 2013.
Leslie Banks, Arnold Bax, Adrian C. Boult and others, ‘Use Of Atomic Weapons’, Times, 14 December 1950, p.7.
Stephens 2003, p.251.
Catherine Jolivette, ‘Science, Art and Landscape in the Nuclear Age’, Art History, vol.35, no.2, April 2012, p.263.
See ‘Note on the Henry Moore Gift’, 1978, Tate Public Records TG 4/6/10/4.
These figures are based on those listed in a memo in the exhibition’s records; see Tate Public Records TG 92/344/2.
Norman Reid, letter to Mary Danowski, 31 August 1978, Tate Public Records TG 4/6/10/4.
See Judith Jeffries, letter to Joanna Drew, 3 October 1978, Tate Public Records TG 4/9/400/1.

How to cite

Alice Correia, ‘Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965 by Henry Moore OM, CH’, catalogue entry, September 2013, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-atom-piece-working-model-for-nuclear-energy-r1171996, accessed 24 April 2024.